In God We Trust: All Others Must Be Screened for Safety
Published: November 12, 2020
In God we trust…all others require screening for safety. Here’s why.
On November 27, 2016, police were called to a church in Maryland to investigate something no one thought would ever happen. The mother of a four-year-old girl summoned policed. She reported that a volunteer nursery worker sexually abused her child during a Sunday morning worship service.
The Baltimore County police arrested a 26-year-old man and charged him with sex abuse of a minor, second-degree assault, child abuse second-degree custodian and second-degree sex offense. Additionally, and even more shocking, detectives that learned several locations in the community that put him in contact with children employed or allowed him to volunteer.
Consider Child Abuse Statistics
Think this could never happen at your church? Think again.
Consider these statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice:
- Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 in 13 boys and 1 in 4 girls face sexual abuse before the age of 18.
- 35.8 percent of sexual assaults occur when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 17.
- Only about 30 percent of sexual assault cases are reported to authorities.
And from the Darkness To Light organization — a nonprofit committed to empowering adults to prevent child sexual abuse:
- There are 42 million survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S.
- 90 percent of abused children know their abuser.
These statistics speak to the urgency of protecting kids. Safety must be a critical concern for children’s ministers today.
Church safety is something for which the wise prepare. To wait until a crisis happens to create safety plans is too late. To believe that “this will never happen to us” is just too risky.
Here are a few ways to keep ministry safe at your church.
Put Safety Policies in Place
Churches need written policies that outline practices for safe ministry. Policies are printed expressions of the value placed on children. If the only reason for safety policies is to protect the organization, the church has missed Jesus’ passion for children.
The process of creating policies is not as complex as it may seem. You can take simple steps that require little or no previous experience. These steps are all deeply significant and valuable in protecting children’s lives, your children’s ministry, and your entire church.
Six Steps to Create a Safety Policy
- Clarify the areas of risk.
- Ask critical questions about each area.
- Gather information from other churches or child-serving organizations regarding their policies and procedures.
- Formulate procedures based on the answers to your questions.
- Ask others to critique the policies and their wording.
- Consult your senior pastor, church attorney, and church insurance agent for final wording.
Polices may seem daunting. However, policies are no more than standards of operation with plans for carrying out or supporting those standards. A policy states what you believe and how you plan to fulfill that belief in action. Additionally, be sure to include plans of action to take if someone breaks the policy.
Thoroughly Screen Each Volunteer
The process of recruiting, screening, and training staff is fast becoming a critical area of safety. I expect that those who serve in children’s ministry must be Christians who are growing in their relationship with Jesus. Beyond the spiritual maturity of these people, though, the church is also required to do all it can to run background checks and protect the children from abusive adults. The church could face accusations of negligent recruiting if no policies exist for the screening and training of people who work with children.
A church in Corona, California, faced a risky situation. One of its volunteers, who hadn’t been screened correctly, was discovered as a listed sex offender. Fortunately, no one filed charges, and the church removed him from service safely. If he had made advances toward a child, the church could’ve been held liable.
Here’s a sample policy statement about screening personnel that’ll get you started: “It is the desire of (name of church) that all who serve in the children’s ministry be examples of Christ-likeness to the children in their words and deeds. All who serve in the children’s ministry must be (prerequisite qualities) and pass through the application process that includes (components of the process).”
Areas to consider:
Each church should determine the qualifications for applying to serve in children’s ministry. Some considerations for an applicant might include a minimum-age requirement, spiritual maturity, or church membership status.
Do you have an application form? Do people apply via bulletin inserts, in person, over the phone, or through a written form? Does your application process include more than an application form? Are there personal interviews, classes, references, or background checks included in the process?
What sort of background checks will be conducted and on which positions? A thorough background check must include social security verification, criminal records from jurisdictions in all 50 states, and include the national sex offender registry. It’s not enough to run a state check alone. Make sure you are getting national coverage.
What effects will a person’s theological beliefs, character references, background check, and spiritual maturity have on the approval of his or her application to serve in children’s ministry? Does the applicant understand these standards? What happens to people who aren’t approved? Are they referred to other ministries, called on the phone, or personally thanked? Are their applications kept on file?
Access to the applicant’s data
It’s important to identify and limit the people who have access to personnel files. Make a list of these people and agree on the list with your pastor and attorney. The people who have access might include your ministry directors, ministry area coordinators, and church pastors.
Many churches have faced wrongful dismissal lawsuits. Having an employee or volunteer sign a clearly written appeals-process policy, which involves the pastoral staff or the church board, is vital. Who oversees the appeals process? The church should decide whether the children’s pastor, the senior pastor, a board member, or a church staff member is going to oversee the appeals process.
Will you compile policies into a handbook? If so, the handbook should contain all policies, procedures, standards, and mission statements pertinent to the ministry. Having new recruits sign acceptance statements regarding ministry policies at the start of their service will prevent many damaging disagreements. Decide which policies will be part of this acceptance process, when they’ll be signed, and where the agreement originals will be stored.
Adequate training is crucial. An untrained team member can claim ignorance or blame the church regarding an abuse or negligence issue. Will your training include an orientation, training meetings, online video training, on-the-job training, or ministry conferences? As part of the training process, is there an apprenticeship period? How long are the new volunteers in an apprenticeship and with whom? What’s the purpose of the apprenticeship? And what are the steps before, during, and after the apprenticeship?
Who oversees the training process? The training process is critical enough to warrant a single overseer. Is this person the children’s pastor, an area coordinator, or an age-level “master” teacher? What does the training process cover? The training process should include training in ministry policies, the mission of the children’s ministry, child characteristics, curriculum use, classroom management, parent relations, discipline, creativity, learning philosophy, child abuse awareness, and emergency procedures.
Supervise for Safety
A single supervisor over the entire ministry may be adequate for a ministry of less than 100 children. However, any ministry with 100 or more children needs multiple levels of supervision.
The size of the room and the age of the children affect the ratio. The church should set the ratios so there’s an adequate number of adults. Most educators recommend these ratios:
Infants: 1 adult to 3 children. Toddlers: 1 adult to 6 children. Preschool: 1 adult to 10 children. Elementary: 1 adult to 12 children.
Are children ever alone with only one adult? Your answer to this question must be NO, NEVER! And children should never ever be unsupervised. How will children be released from classrooms? Are they allowed to meet their parents, or must a parent pick up the child? Who do you allow in your children’s ministry area? Must these people have special name tags to gain clearance into your area? Who manages church exits to ensure that children do not leave the building unsupervised?
Check-in and check-out process
Every entrance and exit needs to be monitored in a welcoming but safe way. Train greeters to identify out-of-place people. Insist that parents pick up children 12 and younger. Additionally, it’s wise to assign someone to monitor the hallways during children’s ministry events to ensure that children are where they should be.
The issue of adults taking children to the restroom is a sensitive one. Children must use the restroom, yet adults being alone with children in the restroom violates the “never-alone-with-children” policy. Two adults in the restroom may leave the classroom without adequate adults. So, leaving the restroom door open with a female hall monitor outside has merit. With these complexities in mind, be sure to train your volunteers specifically about how to assist children when necessary.
Teenagers in ministry
Welcome and encourage teenagers to serve alongside adults. Age requirements and roles for teenagers vary from church to church. Remember, you must screen, supervise, and train teenagers like other volunteers.
Can males change diapers at any time? Can teenagers? You may want to take the safest stance — at the risk of offending males or teenagers — by answering no to this question.
Do the adult-to-child ratios set for the classroom apply to the playground as well? The specific playground structures and environment may require greater adult supervision.
Safety Is a Concern for All Churches
Some people think their church is so small, they don’t worry about these safety problems. However, it’s much easier to make plans and develop safety policies while you’re small and then grow into them. On the other hand, it’s more difficult to wait until your ministry grows so large that changes or adjustments are considered drastic.
Some churches tend to take the biblical concept of trusting God to an extreme. They think nothing bad can happen to Christians. Although Jesus does promise many things about his care and provision for us, we must not be unwise regarding children’s safety. When Jesus sent his disciples out on their first missionary venture, he sent them out in pairs and told them that they were like sheep among wolves. He also told them that bad things would happen to them, but that he would be with them (Matthew 10:16-19).
There is no automatic protection from evil for Christians. So, we need to watch and be ready. Accidents will always happen. Unforeseen circumstances will happen. Therefore, it’s your job as the ministry leader to put procedures in place to protect children.
Steve Alley is an associate professor of children’s ministry at Hope International University in Fullerton, California.
Looking for more information on keeping your ministry safe? Check out these posts!
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